Family Lines

stories for you

Tag: ghost writing (page 2 of 17)

Frozen in time: lives behind photos

My grandmother as a toddler with her aunty, Scotland around 1924.

My grandmother as a toddler with her aunty, Scotland around 1924.

The little girl in the photo on the left is three years old. She’s my grandmother. The child’s joy with being outside with her aunty is frozen in time. But the 94 year-old’s memories of that moment are fresh in her mind.

I took the photo and restored it as best I could. I covered the holes, brightened the image, framed it and then gave it to my grandmother last September. She smiled and smiled and smiled when I handed it to her and she couldn’t stop looking at it.

My paternal grandmother lives in Thunder Bay and I don’t see her often. We talk on the phone and correspond through letters but nothing beats seeing her in person. Nothing beats being able to hear stories and ask questions and more questions and see her eyes brighten when she tells me about her past.

The story behind this photo starts in Scotland. Grandma was playing with her Aunt Elise Booth, a favourite relative. The picture was taken three miles from Huntly, in Aberdeenshire, at the farm where my grandmother lived with her parents. Beyond the haze of the photo are trees and a church and an ice cream shop run by Italians were grandma used to get sliders: ice cream sandwiched between cookies. Beyond the photo are scenes of life and living long gone — but alive to my grandma.

Then, she spoke English in a “Scotch style,” a Scottish dialect.

“Foo are ya the day?”  How are you doing?

She had quite the accent when arriving in Canada at age 7. She won a public speaking contest at her little school in Saskatchewan but lost at the regional event. The Saskatoon judge marked her down for her brogue.

On her Canadian farm, grandma was needed for the thrashing in September. She didn’t work outside with the threshing: 12 men did that hard work. She was in the kitchen in the heat of cooking and baking non-stop. Breakfast was at five in the morning and that meant she had to fry potatoes and bake ham. There was also a lunch in the morning, around 11. Dinner was at noon: meat, more potatoes and pie. Grandma says sometimes a man would eat a quarter of a pie. At 3 in the afternoon, sandwiches and big squares of cake were sent out to the field with coffee in the cream can. At 7, supper was served. Grandma says food tasted better back then.

This is the original photo. I restored it by covering the holes and making the image brighter.

This is the original photo. I restored it by covering the holes and making the image brighter.

Back then, my poppa wasn’t allowed in the delivery room when my uncle and dad were born: delivered by their grandfather, who was a doctor. Grandma and poppa and the boys moved from Saskatchewan to northwestern Ontario where my dad grew up. Where my grandma is today.

When I talk to grandma she opens up another world to me. It’s a world my ancestors walk in. I’m the link between their world, grandma’s and mine. Without her stories, they would fade away.

Shared stories

ebook cover.

Cover by Eveline Kolijn.

Stories bind us. Words tie society together with strands of familiar narratives and shared experiences. Not all stories are happy ones but there’s value in listening to how people are dealing with tough times. You may also learn others are more like you and me than you know.

I heard a lot of these types of stories when I was a volunteer artist facilitator for This is My City Calgary Art Society (TMC). TMC is a not-for-profit organization that brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status.

The following is a story I wrote a couple of years ago after a memoir writing session at the Calgary Drop-in and Rehab Centre.

Shared stories

Today only two participants showed up for my last life writing workshop at the Drop-In Centre. Two regulars. Four other people were in the same space painting and drawing and playing the piano.

I was disappointed one man hadn’t made it to my class. He had been to the three other sessions and was an active learner. He asked a lot of questions and even wanted homework, which he always completed. I asked the other writers where the man was.

“Cheques are out,” one participant told me. “He usually disappears for a while after he gets his money.”

At first, it was a let-down that the man was missing the class. I liked him and having more than two people in my workshop made the low numbers easier to handle. Nevertheless, I gave my lecture like I have the other times. The two men were just as interested in what I had to say and asked questions. They took part in the writing exercises and wrote interesting and compelling memoirs. It was a lesson to me about numbers and participation. Even though there weren’t many people, two people wanted to learn. Wanted to write. And now have stories to share.

A collection of stories by the authors above as well as Alpha House and the Women’s Centre is now available for sale: http://bit.ly/2jHfyvu Profits from Voices in the Wind fund TMC artistic workshops: http://bit.ly/2k4Wymv

Oh Canada

Canadian flag and US flag.There’s been uproar in Canada over what’s happening to our neighbours – the almighty and powerful United States of America. What their new president is doing is abhorrent and nonsensical and as my husband paraphrases Trudeau (Pierre, that is), “We’re the mouse beside the elephant.” However, it’s bothering me that many Canadians are taking an active interest in politics stateside while there are issues in our own country that need voices. Now.

The local Calgary news, my Facebook feed, Twitter and so on are full of anti-Trump rhetoric, calls for protest and moves to avoid the U.S. – all by Canadians. It’s valid to be upset by the megalomaniac living beside us and concerned for our American friends. But why not focus some of that energy on issues at home? Here are two major challenges Canadians should be speaking out about.

Some First Nations and Inuit communities are in the midst of a suicide crisis: it’s a catastrophe for Canada. An investigation done by The Toronto Star found the federal government has done little to help. Federal, provincial and territorial governments should be offering ongoing support or solutions – rather than simply reacting during emergencies. Say something about this, Canada.

Homelessness still exists in our country. According to The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 (Stephen Gaetz, Erin Dej, Tim Richter, & Melanie Redman (2016): The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.), 35,000 Canadians are homeless on a given night. 235,000 Canadians are homeless at some point every year.

These are men, women and children who are our neighbours. A national housing strategy could help end homelessness and one of the recommendations is for our government in Ottawa to adopt a national goal of ending homelessness with clear and measurable outcomes, milestones and criteria. Let’s make the call, Canada.

Of course there are issues beyond our borders that are important and require attention and immediate action. But a danger of turning our thoughts away from home is allowing a Trump-alike to sneak past us and into the lead of the federal Conservatives. If you’re wondering what I’m doing about the above concerns, ask me. If you’re Canadian and you raised your voice about Trump – raise your voice for Canadians too.

Respond, Canada.

Lost Andy

Andy talks and talks and talks. Talks and talks. Then talks some more.

“At school we painted pictures,” he says.

“I can make super-sonic laser beams come out of my eyes.”

“Can I take Jasper out for a walk?”

Andy is annoying me with all his talking. I want to tell him to shut up but I won’t. He’s only seven years old.

Andy is my foster brother. He stays with my family on weekends. Mom and Dad decided to become foster parents since all their kids have grown up and moved away for university. I admire the fact that my parents are doing something for children who need help and love but it’s Christmas. I don’t want Andy around. I want my Mom and Dad all to myself because I’ve been away for four months and have a lot to tell them.

Andy never stops chattering. He follows me around telling me about his latest ninja adventure.

“Me and the ninjas hang out a lot. We just went and beat up some bad guys real bad. They’ve got blood coming out of their noses,” he says.

Andy’s mum doesn’t like him. In fact, she hates him. She never asks how school was or looks at him or kisses him goodnight.

He likes coming to our house because we don’t hit. He said that once. He likes coming to our house because we don’t ignore him. He said that too.

A friend and I were catching up during that same holiday Andy was part of my family. After Katherine and after our coffees, we found a kitten behind the café. It was a freezing cold Saturday and it took a long time to capture the baby. Every time Katherine and I got close she would dart into the brambles.

I managed to catch her when she climbed a tree and was too weak to get very far.

I put the kitten in the car and she howled all the way home. She was starving and wild and scared. At my house I gave her some warm milk and mush to eat. I cleaned her up and she’s beautiful. She tried to snuggle into my collarbone. She looked up at me asking for love with her enormous eyes. She made me cry. She made me put Andy into perspective.

Andy is like the kitten, abandoned and scared. He wants attention and love, except he’s not cute and cuddly. He’s a skinny little boy. He can’t fit into the nook of my shoulder. So he talks constantly to get people to notice him, even if all they’re going to say is be quiet.

After this revelation I try to be nicer to Andy. We walk through the woods together. I show him how to play the piano and how to build a house out of Lego. But he still keeps talking.

Laughing at life

Hockey jersey and high heels.

Funny photo: hockey and heels.

“Ha ha ha.”

That’s me laughing. To myself. I constantly crack myself up. But while I think I’m funny, it sometimes doesn’t translate well onto the page. However, I can’t always write about serious life lessons or sweet little moments because life makes us laugh too. We need to inject humour into our memoirs.

Writing humour is tough but it’s a best-seller once it hits the shelves. Writing a poignant, heartwarming story is a lot easier than writing a comedic memoir. Why? Because we all have different senses of humour.

To some writers, being funny on the page comes naturally. Just read this sentence from Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love.

Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.

That’s so true and hilarious at the same time. She is taking something that’s an incredibly big commitment and making us think about it in a different way. She’s making us look at having a baby in another light. Writers are always looking for ways to describe things in a new way. Gilbert did it here. (No pun intended.)

Life isn’t only a series of ponderous thoughts and events. We have laughter and comedic relief every day. Even in our darkest moments there’s a dot of light. The other day was terrible for me. There were so many things going wrong — and not going right — personally and professionally. I just wanted to get home from the gym and drink the extra-large tea I had just bought and not talk to anyone.

I pulled into the garage and parked in my designated spot. Then I grabbed the tea by the lid and … splash. Hot tea spilled all over the tops of my legs: the burning liquid quickly soaked into my gym tights. I hopped out of the car as fast as I could and wondered what to do. Should I stop, drop and roll? Should I take off my pants in the garage where anyone might drive or walk in? Ouch! That tea was boiling.

A few seconds later, my legs were no longer on fire. The tea was tepid and I was left with an empty cup and feeling more miserable than ever. Oh the tragedy of being upset and being doomed to have nothing ever go right.

Cat in a drawer.

Tomas being funny.

Right. Stop taking yourself so seriously.

“I tea-d myself,” I said aloud to myself. Then I started laughing. It was funny. We’ll all need to laugh once in a while. Why not start with me?

Jokes

Some people find me funny and others might just find me funny-looking. However, I did win first prize at a joke competition in a Revelstoke bar a few years ago with a laugh I wrote. I won’t repeat the joke here as it’s a bit racy but I do have two others I created and can share with you.

Where does Batman go pee? The batroom.

Where do enzymes go to work out? The digestive tract.

No. 1 skeletons

Emply glass milk bottles.My head is full of different types of memories. Some are good memories, like playing hockey on the pond with my dad or my mom taking me to get my ears pierced. Other memories are sad, like when I had to say goodbye to my friends and move to a new community a couple of hundred kilometres away. I also have memories about things that once didn’t made sense to me but I’ve since clarified them over the years.

In Westville, NS in the mid-70s, there was still a milkman. Carton and jugs of milk were sold in the store but the milkman also delivered milk in glass bottles to homes around town. My family’s house even had a cut-out in the wall of our entryway for the milk. Every morning my parents put out a sign that either said “No” (they didn’t want milk) or “Yes” (they wanted milk). When the milk came, the full bottles were put on the shelf in the entry way. The milk was kept fresh with a cap, a cap that had No. 1 written on it. When six-year-old me read that, I was confused.

Huh? No one is supposed to drink the milk? Why not? I asked my parents about this and they explained to me that the N and the O were short form for the word number. The milk people were declaring their milk as Number One – the best milk to drink. Oh. Sure?

Apartheid was another thing I struggled to understand. Dad and me (I might have been seven) were shopping for a birthday present for mom and we went into a nice store. I found a glorious shiny brass plate and thought I had struck gold. It was perfect.

“No,” said Dad. “This was made in South Africa. We don’t buy anything from there.”

“Why not?”

“Because of apartheid. The government there doesn’t treat black people fairly.”

I’m sure my father gave me a more lengthy history lecture but I couldn’t understand why this South Africa would treat its people terribly. However, the lesson was learned and my world both widened and shrank at the news that not everyone is treated equally.

Red Skelton’s name was a head-scratcher for me as a kid. On a March break trip to Florida, my family was visiting John’s Pass, a touristy fishing village. Red Skelton, the comedian and early TV performer, had an exhibition of his art there and was also there in person.

“I just met Red Skelton!” said my mother.

Red Skelton with artwork,

Red Skelton with artwork, 1948. Macfadden Publications.

“Who?”

I had interpreted the artist’s name as Red Skeleton. Why was mom so excited to see a bloody skeleton? How was this guy even alive?

“He’s a clown who paints clowns.”

That did not make the image in my head any better.

Knowlton Nash is another figure I had a hard time figuring out many years before I became a journalist myself. When my family was in Ottawa staying at the Chateau Laurier, Nash was staying at the same hotel. There was some sort of world conference going on and the CBC anchor was either covering it or part of it. My mom spotted him in the hotel gift shop.

“There’s Knowlton Nash!”

Nolltown Gnash? I looked over the man my mother was (covertly) staring at and saw a blond haired man with huge glasses. He’s an icon in the media world where I’d end up later in life but as a tween girl, I had no idea why this man was worthy of being recognized. And what was up with those mammoth glasses?

Nowadays, I can just google anything that muddles my brain. But back then, when computers took up a lot more space than the palm of my hand, I had to work things out for myself, skeletons and all. Interestingly enough though, my own last name never caused me any nor my playground playmates any confusion.

“Tell me a story, Lea Storry!” they’d shout to me at recess.

Thankfully, my parents didn’t call me Rita.

No Bones about it

Me and a dog,.

Me and my buddy Bones. Photo by Don Aubrey.

A few years ago, I walked the dogs and patted the cats as a volunteer for the Fort Smith Animal Shelter. There were a lot of stray animals in the tiny Northwest Territories town. It’s especially imperative there’s a haven for animals there because of the extreme cold in winter. Once the dogs and cats are in the shelter they get tons of warmth and love from the volunteers.

I went to the shelter on weekends and sometimes during my lunch hour on weekdays. When I first started working at the shelter I got teary eyed every visit thinking about all the abandoned pets. But I kept going because if I wasn’t there, who would take my place?

Most of the cats enjoyed a pat or 30 (I ended up taking one of the kitties home.) They purred and cuddled and played with me in the cosy kitty room. I always had to hurry to shut the cat room door when I was leaving because they’d try to follow me out.

The main room was where the dog pens were housed. There were huskies and Labs and even a mini Pinscher that I wanted to adopt. There were old dogs and middle-aged dogs and puppies. There were adorable dogs and funny-looking mutts and dogs I couldn’t walk because they were too large and too strong and they walked me.

There was one big guy named Bones at the shelter and if you met him in a dark alley you probably would run the other way. He only looked scary. I’m not sure what breed he was but he was definitely a cross between a German Shepherd and a Rottweiler. He had the brown and black colouring of both canines, the ears that stuck straight up in a Shepherd and the snout of a Rottie. He had the strength of a horse and even his tail could pack a mighty thwack if you walked past him. Bones wasn’t meant for fighting though and it showed through in his soft, kind brown eyes and friendly demeanour.

Cats/

In the cat room.

Bones could have been a bad man but he was the sweetest dog in the world. He enjoyed people and pats and going for walks. I loved him a lot. We used to wander around the snow-covered paths in winter looking for new sights (for me) and new smells (for him). Bones was my best buddy. I’d tell him all kinds of stuff and he never butted in with unwanted opinions or advice. Ever. He just kept silent and let me do the talking.

It took a while before Bones was adopted so we had a pretty long relationship. He even chaperoned a couple of dates I went on with a human. Bones wasn’t the jealous kind and he let my soon-to-be boyfriend tag along with us.

Bones went to live with a local family in Smith and was often seen hanging out at their shop. I went to see him a couple of times and he’d always stand on his hind legs and give me a bear hug. He knocked me over each time as he was almost the same size as me.

Thus year, 2017, marks almost 10 years since I last saw him. He was hit by a vehicle a while after I moved from Fort Smith to B.C. I heard the news through a shelter friend and I cried over the loss of my big, furry friend. I still miss him.

Gifts not presents

Woman sitting in Fanas, Switzerland.

My big ugly coat I can’t find. I’m in Fanas, Switzerland here.

Christmas is on the horizon and for many of us, that means lots of cookies and eggnog and family time. My immediate family (and family-in-laws) don’t live close enough to us to hop over for some seasonal cheer but my husband and I consider our friends as extended family.

It’s a gift we have these people in our lives in Calgary. This week though — this cold, cold week — I’ve been thinking about other gifts that I’m grateful for: and not expensive presents.

It’s super-duper freezing outside and I walk everywhere (most everywhere). Somehow, I’ve lost two winter coats. Oh I know they’re packed in boxes but I’m not sure which boxes. I didn’t label them when I loaded them full of housewares and clothing and knickknacks in preparation for a move. Well, that move hasn’t happened yet but winter has. I did know where one special winter coat was put and dug it out.

The special coat was my Nana’s. It’s pink and pure virgin wool (so says the tag) and has a fur-lined hood. Nana lived in northwestern Ontario and it’s cold there. The coat must have worked because she used it for a long time and then handed it to me before I moved from Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) about 10 years ago. I never used the vintage coat in the N.W.T. because I had a black, puffy parka that looked like a sleeping bag on steroids.

Now I can’t find that black coat nor another black parka that looks almost the same. I had to start using my Nana’s coat. I put it on today and walked downtown in the -33 (with wind-chill) weather. It worked! I was warm and cozy in the wool coat and I even got some compliments on it while I was shopping in the mall.

I never saw Nana again after she gave me the coat: she died soon after I went to the N.W.T. Her gift is finally being put to use 10 years later and I’m grateful for its warmth and the reminder of her as a flesh and blood person. She wasn’t always an old woman. She wasn’t always my Nana. She was young and had ideas and dreams and perhaps, in her coat, she lived some of them.

Cold Calgary: view from Nose Hill Park.

Cold Calgary: view from Nose Hill Park.

Another gift is the gift of nature in the city. Like I said and many of you know, it’s freaking cold. But have you seen how beautiful it is outside? The fog rolling off the Bow River in the morning turns everything around it silver. The fresh snow covering the brown leaves on the ground and ugly grey pavement convinces us that the streets are pretty and Christmas is just around the corner. At night, when the festive lights are turned on, they still can’t compete with the stars. The clear cold air only accentuates their brilliance, reminding me that I’m one small person on this large planet.

With the holidays comes goodwill. People hold doors open for me. They stop their vehicles to let me cross the street. They put down their mobiles to engage in conversation with me, a stranger. This is a great gift and I wish it continued all year long because this is an important gift: the gift of time. Taking a couple of seconds to be friendly doesn’t take much and you’ll never know how deeply your kindness was felt.

“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Staying ahead of competition

People running a race.Capital Ideas Calgary is a community that links business owners to an important resource: other business owners. Each week, Capital Ideas puts out a question that’s answered by entrepreneurs based on their experiences.

Last week, Capital Ideas Calgary asked businesses: What market research helps you stay ahead of your competition?

Here’s my answer (along with other business owners): http://capitalideascalgary.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016.12.01Final.pdf

I always answered June’s question: How do you maintain life balance as an entrepreneur?

Here’s my answer published in the Calgary Herald on June 16, 2016: http://capitalideascalgary.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/CH-0616-final.pdf

What would you answer to the questions above?

A banner day

Girl drawing.

A loon scene.

Revelstoke, B.C. has a wonderful tradition: hanging hand-painted banners to deck the streets of the mountain city. The community-based program lets artists (and non-artists) paint their impressions of the town red. Or green, or brown or purple. After some prodding from friends, I put paint to canvas and helped create a flag for one of Revelstoke’s light poles.

The street banner program has been part of Revelstoke for many years. It’s hard to miss the flags hanging around the city. They wave hello and goodbye to people coming and going and brighten up dark November days when the snow has yet to make it all the way to the ground.

Revelstoke is more than a place for tourists to ski or go mountain biking, it’s a community where people have jobs and kids go to school and life is lived. I called Revelstoke home a few years ago and still have friends there, artistic friends. A couple of weeks ago I was visiting one family when it was their turn to create their banners.

Next year is Canada’s 150 birthday and the Revelstoke’s banner program is celebrating the milestone with the theme “Canada’s 150th — Strong, Proud and Free.” On that note, banners this year had to represent Canada and you could only use red, white or black paint. Hmm, in that case I think I’ll paint Canada at night.

Girl drawing.

A squirrel and a fox scene.

As a writer, I rely on words to paint pictures. I cannot draw or paint at all. (Okay. I can draw brown trees without leaves and blue ponds with grass.) Thankfully, my friend Pauline and her two daughters are accomplished artists so I had a lot of help. Pauline put together images of a heron standing in water ripples. She borrowed some elements from First Nations art and designed an extraordinary piece.

Next, I had to trace the design onto a thin sheet of Mylar, (plastic about as big as a piece of paper). Then we took the sheet to the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre where the Mylar was put on a projector and the image shone onto a white waterproof canvas framed in wood. I traced the outline of the heron with a black marker onto the banner. The canvas was laid down on a table and Pauline and I got to work filling in the heron.

For me, painting was hard work. I didn’t have the patience or the creativity to colour inside the lines. (I was a terrible colourer as a kid. Always straying from the boundaries of the picture.) I took lots of deep breaths and concentrated on not making a mess. Pauline and her daughters gave me tips on how to move the paintbrush.

Outline of a heron.

Hello heron – tracing the outline of the bird onto the banner.

“Use your whole arm, not just your hand.”

“Slow down. You don’t have a deadline.”

No, there was no rush but there was pressure, pressure to make something that people would look at and not wrinkle their noses at. Pressure to have a banner that would represent Revelstoke as well as Canada. Pressure to not screw up.

With words, you have the freedom to move them around and change them. With the click of a button, the flick of a wrist, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, disappears. Painting is more permanent. Splash some red on the white canvas, like I did, and it’s not easily washed away. The red, diluted by water and detergent, turned pink. It changed the scene on the canvas, and made the heron seem like it was looking at an early sunset. That wouldn’t happen with words. But it’s sometimes good to know you can’t change things. Even if you paint over the sunset, it’ll still be there.

Heron painted in.

You’ll have to go to Revelstoke in the spring to find the finished oeuvre.

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